December 16, 2017

First Published on

Ulster Hall

By Elizabeth McGeown 15 December 2017

He’s not as regular around these parts as, say, Santa would be this time of year. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a run of more than two Belfast Christmases in the past decade where Glen Hansard hasn’t made a seasonal appearance, usually in The Ulster Hall. He almost suits the setting, his timeless troubador look fitting the Victorian interior and if he ever felt upstaged by the Mulholland Grand Organ, he’s giving it a run for its money this time with a full band including three person brass section [trombone, trumpet and saxophone], string trio [sometimes quartet when the bassist Joe Doyle – also of The Frames – switches to double bass], pianist, drummer and long-term collaborator The Frames’ Rob Bochnik on guitar, mandolin, backing vocals and ready, encouraging smiles as he watches his friend blossom onstage.


And it is a kind of blossoming. ‘Return’, like many of the songs in the first phase of the show, the string phase, begins quietly and suddenly bursts into bloom, violin strings released like petals expanding as if in a timelapse photo series of a flower. ‘One Of Us Must Lose’ and ‘Winning Streak’ are a mellow pairing, easing us gently in to the evening, Hansard cradling his acoustic and belying the complexity of what’s to follow, ‘My Little Ruin’ with its lush pizzicato strings reminiscent of raindrops heavy with intent.


Each song has a personalised introduction, of course. ‘Bird Of Sorrow’ for his Mother, ‘Shelter Me’ for a young man sleeping at Apollo House [a Dublin building occupied by activists from the charity Home Sweet Home and used to shelter homeless people over the Christmas period in 2016]. “His words stayed with me, so I rhymed them.” And every song has a bittersweet note like this. A joke, sometimes with a jibe, sometimes with a longer tale to tale. It’s a Billy Connolly style of rambling storytelling, a punchline found five minutes later, or an hour later. Woody Guthrie’s ‘Vigilante Man’ is played on ukulele and Hansard speaks of visiting Guthrie’s old house, finding pages of lyrics written by Guthrie about his landlord who turns out to be none other than the father of Donald Trump and expresses his modern day desire to incorporate these lyrics into a song by… incorporating them into a song, ‘Vigilante Man’ becoming a Trump anthem for the decades, interspersing lyrics about the KKK in Guthrie’s time to Mexicans in the present day ending in an audience roar when the lines he read in Guthrie’s book come back to us full circle: “What I wouldn’t do to him if I thought I could get away with it.”


There are moments of pin-drop silence, of course. But what there is more of – even from the start when audiences are usually too shy – is singing. The beat-behind vocals of the festive reveller chase Hansard throughout the evening, lovingly ramshackle. ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ from The Swell Season project is a glorious example of this, the choir led by Hansard, the red-faced, bearded sailor of screaming effort ducking his head bashfully and the audience redoubles their efforts. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a woefully overused expression when it comes to performance and it’s not exactly right here. Hansard doesn’t so much as wear his heart on his sleeve as rip open his cuffs and sleevelessly share every hurt ever experienced by him.

The band all have their chances to shine. ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ turns into an extended jam, Appalachian harmonies provided by Bochnik as the two duel their electric guitars. The strings come and go, taking breaks off stage and returning when a timeout is needed from the raucousness. Ruth O’Mahony Brady steps in for piano and Marketa Irglova’s famous vocal on ‘Falling Slowly’ which is met by a chorus of: “Awwww!” followed by a chorus of shushes. The brass is back in full force on ‘Wedding Ring’, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes taking a step out to the front of the stage to share lead vocals and get some personal applause, staying at the front for ‘Lowly Deserter’ and doing a trombone solo, the rest of the brass letting loose with the audience, who know the end of the night is approaching. ‘Her Mercy’ was always going to be a party, a slow-building epic that curves around snippets of other songs and then restarts again, a verse or two of ‘Star, Star’ appearing isolated in the middle and then cut away again, just as the first audience tears begin to fall. Hansard is a mater at these kinds of interruptions and shrill strings again pierce ‘Her Mercy’ for the discordant ‘Pure Imagination’ from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971), a long-time favourite of his coupled and when he utters the magic words: “It’s all yours Charlie, the whole chocolate factory, I’m leaving it to you.” segueing straight back into – you’ve guessed it – ‘Hey Mercy’ the audience are with him totally, hands raised in answer to Hansard’s own raised hands.


‘Grace Beneath The Pines’ begins the encore and Hansard challenges the audience by standing at the front of the stage, completely off-mic so they have to be their quietest selves to hear. They succeed, and their pride and pleasure at being a part of such a moment is palpable. ‘Song Of Good Hope’ and ‘McCormack’s Wall’ follow, the latter an aimless, lazy drinking song about foolishness which turns, suddenly, into a hoedown and the whoops when people realise this are joyous. A completely a capella version of ”The Rocky Road To Dublin’ animatedly follows, Hansard seemingly surprising even himself with his song choices. Everyone departs the stage once more only to return for his ode to Belfast, Van Morrison’s ‘Into The Mystic’. And then it’s out into the icy night for everyone, the cameraderie experienced making the temperature just a little less chill.




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